'I was very disappointed in the report'- Phil Harding; Muskoka Lakes, Huntsville on Flood Report

Photo Credit: Phil Harding

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Agatha Farmer

Special advisor Doug McNeil released his 157 page report on the historic and unprecedented 2019 flooding of Muskoka on Nov. 28. Since the drop of the report very little has been circulating regarding the topic and reaction to it has been lacking, frankly, non-existent from the region's elected officials.

It was such a non-event it seems that as of January 16 Parry-Sound Muskoka MPP Norm Miller confirmed that he had not even discussed the report's findings or recommendations with Muskoka's mayors as of yet.

In his report McNeil concluded that "based on an analysis of the information available for all of the systems that experienced flooding in 2019, nothing points to human error or the negligent operation of water control structures as the cause of the flooding. The sheer amount of water (snow and rainfall) on the landscape directly contributed to the flooding. Measures taken by water managers everywhere were effective in reducing the magnitude of flooding and associated damages throughout the drainage basins."

The regions silence regarding McNeil's report, however, was loudly broken at a recent Jan. 15 Muskoka Lakes council meeting.

Being an agenda item township staff prepared a multi-department collaborative report. Council heard opinion regarding McNeil's 66 recommendations from Ken Becking, director of public works, David Pink, director of planning and Ryan Murrell, Muskoka Lakes fire chief.

Becking focused on Muskoka related recommendations and gave councillors background on McNeil who is an engineer from Manitoba with extensive flood experience.

"His job was to look at the roles and responsibilities of the province, communications to public stakeholders, legislative and regulatory framework, and improvement for community resilience," he said.

Becking summarized that McNeil's recommendations focused on three areas;

1. Emergency Preparedness - consisted of two options;

McNeil suggested risk based approach to flood related matters or

Identifying hazard areas that are subject to flooding and not allowing development

"That would be nice if we had a completely clean slate and didn't have to worry about anything else other than flooding." As a result Becking suggested a risk based approach to assess risk of flooding.

2. Improved Flood Plain Mapping

3. Improvement of Predictive Capabilities

"We should have had a far better and far longer lead time to this and we didn't and with the level of technology that we have at our disposal we should have seen this freight train coming," concluded Becking.

David Pink's development and planning points centered on docks, boathouses, and cottages being built on flood lands and the recommendation for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks to consider issuing a ministerial order restricting development.

"Certainly in the township docks and boathouses do continue to be built in flood plains obviously a ministerial order would impact the township of Muskoka Lakes," he said.

Pink also noted that a ministerial order would more than likely not affect existing flood plain properties but could impact any future development.

Distirct of Muskoka is currently undertaking flood plain mapping and is set to release a report shortly.

Fire Chief Murrell reported that the hydrometric network was inconsistent and unreliable during the flooding of 2019 and McNeil recommends that this system have consistent stable funding which seems to indicate that it was lacking in the past. The chief believes that data from water measuring systems should be made available to the public on a web platform so they have advance warning with flood forecasts.

Murrell also focused on communication during emergencies, he zeroed in on the fact that the emergency management initiatives have been slow to adopt at all levels, specifically the two tiered model as it required the same information support with each level individually. Murrell would like to see this streamlined in the future on a provincially supported website.

Coun. Glenn Zavitz said there was nothing in the report which "affects him as a land owner on Lake Muskoka."

Muskoka Lakes Mayor Phil Harding famously blasted the province in Spring 2019 criticizing the government for failure to maintain adequate water levels in the Muskoka watershed and called for an immediate update to the Muskoka River Water Management Plan to reflect climate change data. During the recent council meeting true to his stance on this issue Harding was critical of McNeil's report and expressed his frustration in the lack of communication between the municipality and the province following the release of the report and an early December request by TML to meet with officials from the MNRF.

"The flood advisors report certainly does not provide any solutions and certainly not for short term mitigation as to what do to in four months. I was very disappointed in the report, I've been disappointed in the MNRF for not responding. We do have this $5 million dollar committee and I'm cautious that they are going to get some answers moving forward," Harding said.

Harding told council that all three municipalities which declared emergencies in 2019 - Muskoka Lakes, Huntsville, Bracebridge,- are working collaboratively to address a united response.

"We need to illicit more help from Norm Miller and we need to start to get some answers. The one thing that I believe will help all concerned, which is a recommendation from this report, is that over the last 10 years we need to look at every lake above stream ... we need to identify and overlay that plan with where the actual water levels were," he said.

Harding believes this will allow better predictability of floods. He also thinks that such studies would show water levels over the last decade have been middle to high over the target line on the operating zone spectrum and in fact "bounce above the operating zone regularly, we very rarely go down or below."

While the water levels might be on the high side Harding also recognizes that extremely low water levels lead to stagnant water and can cause algae blooms.

Huntsville's Mayor Karin Terziano confirmed that the town has "been working on a Muskoka wide response to the McNeil recommendations and this report once finalized will be presented to each municipal council."

As for the town's flood mitigation plans for 2020 Terziano confirmed that it will not include raising of roads as was previously discussed at public meetings as a possible solution in the immediate aftermath of the flooding.

"We have no plans to raise any roads at this time. Our review of the McNeil report is expected later this month.The Muskoka Watershed Council is reviewing the Muskoka water shed and will be making suggestions for water system controls in the future which we hope will help control water levels," she said, "The town has made changes with its emergency plan in regards to better communication with the public and provide flood preparation information to those living in flood prone areas."

Terziano also noted that she will be at the Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference this week and hopes to have further discussion with provincial officials. Indicating that like Muskoka Lakes, Huntsville has also not had any formal meetings or discussions with the MNRF or other ministries to date.

Muskoka Post also reached out to Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith regarding his municipality's reaction to the flood report as well as the town's individual Spring 2020 plans for flood mitigation, however, at publication time of this story we had not received a response from Mayor Smith.

To Read Muskoka Post's MPP Norm Miller's question and answer interview regarding the 2019 Flood Report as well as his response to Muskoka Lakes council comments click here:


The MECP established Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group will be holding a community listening session to obtain public input on issues within the watershed on January 23 from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Port Carling Community Centre.

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